Monday, March 28, 2011

7.1. Premiere performance on March 25, Almaty, Kazakhstan

Sazgen Sazy with Timur Bekbosunov and Maestro Zhamat Temirgaliyev with the premiere performance of The Silent Steppe Cantata, Philharmonic Hall, Almaty - March 25, 2011

Posted by Anne LeBaron; Photos by Sandra Powers

The March 25, 2011 premiere performance of The Silent Steppe Cantata, along with the introductory documentary by Sandra Powers, The Nomad’s Song, was a resounding success, according to all the reports I’ve received. Timur Bekbosunov wrote:

“The performance was superb, and attracted great praise, specifically from many critics, journalists, musicians, city officials, the U.S. Consulate, all of our partners, sponsors, friends, who just went crazy over it, calling it ‘legendary.’ People kept telling me to please tell the composer that we bow to her talent and ability for making our country proud!”

Many aspects of the Republic of Kazakhstan were inspiring to me as I composed this piece, particularly the tolerance of different faiths. Extending the representation of tolerance to an acceptance of various languages in Kazakhstan, I wanted the cantata to reflect the multiple identities represented in this vast country, and therefore set the words in a combination of Russian, Kazakh, and English. The libretto, compiled by myself and Timur Bekbosunov, is based on writings and works of Albert Fischler, A.I. Orazbaeva, Olzhas Suilemenov, M.X. Abuseitova, Abai, Galimzhan Beghozhin, Isa Daukebaev, and Zhuban Moldagaliev.

As I wasn't able to attend, I’ve yet to hear the performance but anxiously await the moment when the recording is available. Meanwhile, Eugene Moon’s personal experience of the premiere provides a more complete description. He writes:

"The cantata was in three sections. The first one, “Awakening,” introduced the appearance of the Kazakh people on earth, connected to the myth that they originated from the sun. The second section, “Silencing,” dealt with the conquest and oppression of the Kazakh people. The mood of the music was sinister; Timur started singing in a rap style. The energy and passion of the music increased, as it described the oppressive history suffered by Kazakhstan, brought on at various times by Mongols, Jungars, Russians, and Soviets---such as the collectivization and labor camps that took the lives of over a million Kazakhs. The music has this terrifying brooding quality until the mood changed, with the message that this was not the end. In “Roar of the Twenty-first Century,” the third section, the music had a nationalistic feeling, almost patriotic. Timur roared in his tenor voice with the reawakening of the sun and the people as they recovered from so many hardships, ready to face the new age and millennium, ready to expose their country and culture to the world as the "new seventh continent.” The last part of the piece has a more cinematic feel, and was played with passion and vigor. At the end, the audience cheered, jumping up to hand bouquets to Timur for the wonderful performance. I congratulate you, Anne, for creating this wonderful piece and I thank you for all the work and effort that you put into it. It was amazing, stunningly amazing beyond words. I wish it was longer, that's how much I enjoyed your piece. It was epic."

Friday, March 25, 2011

6.1. Press Conference in Almaty

Sandra Powers, Timur Bekbosunov, official, Daniel Corral, official

Timur Bekbosunov

Post by Anne LeBaron; photos by Sandra Powers

I've been able to skype into rehearsals with the orchestra and singers, 13 hour difference but thrilling to hear parts of the cantata being rehearsed so well, transmitted from Almaty to Valencia, CA. At the press conference on March 25, twenty-three journalists attended and conducted many interviews with our artists; also, four TV stations were represented. The Silent Steppe Cantata premiere is scheduled for the evening of March 25 in Almaty, meaning that it already took place and that everyone is partying after midnight there, as I write this at noon! So I'm anxiously awaiting the final report of how everything turned out.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

5.1. Second rehearsal of cantata, with singers

Timur Bekbosunov and Maestro Zhamagat Temirgaliev

Posted by Eugene Moon; photos by Sandra Powers

The singers came to today's rehearsal, a women's vocal group led by a Russian conductor,
Yan Rudkovsky. Dan and I started recording the piece. It began with Timur speaking in Russian, probably a summary of the history of Kazakhstan and its people as an intro. Then the music starts. The music was wonderful and I can remember how it goes from hearing the last rehearsal. It was absolutely wonderful and the good thing about the recording device on the tripod was that I could record the rehearsal with my own camera and capture that music they were playing. The beginning sounded almost Western or cinematic then it mixed with folk tunes and some other Western styles of music. Timur sang very loudly in operatic style, mostly in Russian. He sang a few words in English, like, "I am a Kazakh," and also English in the section that is a bit like rap, where he talks in double speed, compared to the pace of his tenor singing of the music. All I remember from that rap part was something about defending against or being attacked by the Tatar, Russians, Cossacks, and Uzbeks. It has a very interesting rhythm and mood to it, almost like a movie soundtrack where the villain plans a strategy. The ensemble took a break and Delora and I took photos, exploring the instruments in this instrumental wonderland. They were just amazing, especially the Zhetygen, Adyrna, and Kobyz. The musicians returned and played again, this time without interruption from the conductor. I recorded again, but I missed a couple of seconds of the intro where Timur was speaking in the steppe winds (background singers were making the wind sound). It was wonderful to hear it played again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

4.3. Timur and Daniel perform for the camera

Daniel with uke, and Timur---Dime Museumers on a break
Eugene with his beloved boom

Daniel Corral, representing me in Silent Steppe Cantata rehearsals, reminding me of my dad in this photo

Post by Eugene Moon; photos by Sandra Powers

After the adventures of today, we decided to film Timur's operatic singing for the cantata project. While we were waiting in our rooms to begin filming, I suddenly got nauseous and developed a headache. Lying down to recuperate didn't help, and the room got suddenly hot and stuffy. Next I tried walking around the hotel to get better, but I didn’t expect the hotel to have various smells. Each area has the smell of food and some other strange aromas, but the smell that nearly made me sick was the smell of qurt. I wasn’t sure if the restaurant was making more qurt or if I could just smell it in my head. I decided it was the latter, and assumed that all the kumys I drank earlier, which was enjoyable, was the source of my illness. After a while, I was feeling better and was able to help film Timur and Dan's performance. We used the large and spacious ballroom, and Sandra started filming Timur singing an operatic improvisation about the cantata project, while Dan played the ukulele and I held the boom pole.

Dan and I will have a dombra lesson tomorrow night. This should be exciting. I hope I can buy a dombra before I leave. If I watch any more Sazgen Sazy rehearsals, I might want to learn all the instruments they play. They were just so wonderful and interesting to listen to and play, that it might overwhelm me with the desire to own and play the instruments.

4.2. Recording Sazgen Sazy musicians; Exotic Americans

musicians from Sazgen Sazy, ethnographic folk orchestra
Guarding the old square
Sandra Powers, rare appearance in front of lens

Post by Eugene Moon; photos by Sandra Powers

Today we will record the musicians who will play a song for us at another hotel, the Intercontinental, subtitled
‘Ankara in Almaty.’ Three of the musicians were in traditional costumes. We set up the video and audio equipment by the back wall of the dining room, which has a maroon color that contrasted with the bright colors of the musicians' costumes, which were very beautiful. The instruments they played were the dombra, kyl kobyz, and Abai dombra, which has a flat body and a more elongated pentagonal shape, with three strings instead of two. We filmed them four times, with Delora (Timur's original host mother in the U.S.) using the slate. I used the boom pole, this time, over my head instead of at mid-level. It was easier to hold this way and less painful than when it was over my head. I managed to keep the mic above my head and not let it get into the shot. That was the hardest six minutes for my arm in my life. At least I was compensated by hearing the wonderful traditional instruments being played while filming. I would like to get a recording of it for casual listening.

After filming, we returned to the old square where the festival was yesterday. Since the square was blocked off until the evening dance festivities, we went to the park behind the square, where there were a lot more people and vendors. Now people started staring at us, but I think mostly at Sandra and Delora. There was a Russian man blatantly taking photos of us and I counter-photoed him. Who's the tourist now? Sandra was the center of attention because of her American looks, with her peach-colored vintage hat which people called her cowboy hat (or cowgirl, to be specific, since she had tied a ribbon on it). I would not be in the center of the circle if it were not for Sandra needing my help. I think I would have blended in with the crowd because my clothes were slightly similar to what the young men were wearing. (I noticed that the younger men all wear the same type of clothes: zipped up jacket, tight designer pants, boot-like shoes, and short hair. The women show more diversity in their fashion choices; some were wearing short skirts even in the snow.) Being encircled by staring strangers felt as if we were a strange attraction in a fair or zoo. It's amusing that tourists who travel to a different country to come see exotic landscapes end up being the exotic ones for the inhabitants.

4.1. Kumys and Shumbat; Koreans in Kazakhstan

Daniel, Delora, Timur
Almaty snow-scape
Timur in repose

Post by Eugene Moon; photos by Sandra Powers

When I returned to the hotel, it was nearly time for brunch. The food they served was mostly traditional Kazakh food, like pilov (the name of the same rice I had yesterday), bishpermak, shumbat and a type of beef and noodle soup served only during Nauryz. The most intriguing food items are kumys and shumbat. They are both milk-based drinks that came from horse and camel. Shumbat has a cheesy taste and some bits of curd. Kumys has more layers of flavor. After drinking the thin liquid, the aftertaste just charged at me. Mild and sour, kumys resembles a liquid version of qurt. The taste of it lingered and then turned slightly alcoholic at the end. In fact, kumys is fermented horse milk with a 2-3% alcohol content. I enjoyed the drink, served in small bowls holding between ½ - 1 cup. After drinking only two cups, I started to feel slightly dizzy. Timur's dad, Viktor, who joined us, cannot drink due to driving safety concerns. Bishpermak, a kind of Kazakh pasta, consists of sheets of folded pasta (like lasagna), onions, and horse meat---really delicious. Even though it was oily, I would have eaten more of it if my stomach were not full. There was so much good food there, especially non-Kazakh food, like sushi, french fries, and chocolate ice cream.

Speaking of sushi, a waitress thought I was Japanese after I said “thank you” to her in a mixture of Kazakh and Russian and she responded in Japanese. She was the first Kazakh who thought I was Japanese, while everyone else knew I was Korean. There are a lot of Koreans in Kazakhstan. They did not choose to live there but were deported in the 1930s when Stalin labeled them as spies for Japan. Many Koreans living within the Russian borders of Manchuria were deported and most seem to have lost any knowledge of the Korean language (Hangul), and speak Russian instead. Here, they are called Koryo Saram, while we Koreans call them Goryuh-In. However, Koreans I’m encountering during my stay here can speak Korean; they were likely visitors rather than inhabitants of Kazakhstan, as I see them in tourist places and hotels.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

3.2. Nauryz festival; meeting Mara; qurt

Sandra. Camel.
Mara, Sandra, Timur, Daniel, Eugene
Timur looking for extraterrestrial life in a yurt

Post by Eugene Moon; Photos by Sandra Powers and Daniel Corral

After we went to our hotel to change and rest a little, we went to the Old Square, where they were holding festivities for the Nauryz festival. We arrived at the square and crowds of people were in attendance, listening and dancing to Kazakh pop songs, eating free food from the vendor, and riding horses. We met with Mara, director of the festival---a boisterous and friendly woman. She gave us a tour of the festival and told us the origins of Nauryz. The holiday, Nauryz (different from the Persian Nowruz), was created by Turkic people as a new year event to celebrate the arrival of spring. She showed us the inside of a yurt display, demonstrating what Nomadic life was like. It was a very large yurt, and could have been a nobleman's yurt, and there was a lot of fabric, furniture, and belongings. Although the display was not made of felt, we were out of the cold for a while. We kept on walking and saw a falconer with an eagle perched on his arm. It was wearing a helmet that covered its eyes. The helmet, according to Mara, is worn to protect visitors, because the bird is only comfortable with the owner and if it were to see a stranger, it would attack in self defense. It was fascinating to see it flap and spreads its wings while the falconer walked away blending with the crowd, while the wings were visible until it disappeared, as if from some movie or a dream. As we departed, Timur suggested that we try qurt, a type of cheese that contains a lot of calcium. It tasted sour and tangy. I have to say, it is funkier than the taste of dolmas, and I like the flavor of both. Mara kindly bought each of us the qurt balls.

Monday, March 21, 2011

3.1. Almaty National Park Reserve; elusive rural kumys; bird rescue center

Timur B., Daniel C., Eugene M., imbibing airan

helmeted steppe eagle
high-protein eagle cuisine

Posted by Eugene Moon; photos by Sandra Powers and Daniel Corral

Timur, Sandra, Daniel, and I departed at 11 AM to go to the Almaty Lake and the Observatory Tower in the Almaty National Park Reserve, with our new driver, Ivan, a Russian with a warm disposition who seems to understand a bit of English. Before entering the park, we encountered a fancy looking golden fountain at the center of a roundabout and a large elaborate gate flanked by pillars that looked like something from Caesar's Palace. It was actually the entrance to the First President's Park, built exclusively for the first and current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. There was a hill in the center of the park with what appeared to be two Acropolis-like buildings, built for the president as a retreat, and a place to write his books and memoirs. There are buildings, restaurants, and cottages lined up along the streets that are built like medieval castles and forts.

After hiking up a small mountain, we decided to go in search of kumys, an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare's milk. The pure kind of kumys is found in rural areas or on ranches, while the factory-made kumys, available in the city, is diluted with water or cow's milk. We headed for a ranch near the entrance of the Reserve. When we got there, we were told that the mares weren’t ready to be milked for kumys for two more weeks. That was disappointing, but they did have airan, a milk drink similar to keffir. It’s not yogurt but it has the texture and taste of sour yogurt.

The ranch also happened to be a bird rescue center, with owls, hawks, falcons, and eagles native to Kazakhstan. The steppe eagles, tethered outside the cages, look amazing and fierce. They make a weird sound similar to a duck. Another striking creature: the Griffin Vulture, a large majestic white vulture. It has a large wingspan and it wasn't happy with its situation, gnawing at its tether. When it tried to fly away, one can see how long its wings are. We were also shown a Bearded Vulture, which looks like an eagle and is known for eating bones and dropping them from high ground. These are the largest birds I have ever seen and their wingspan is 10 ft! Their eyes look menacingly monstrous and frightening, as does their appearance and color. Sandra described them as "hardcore."

The tour guide wanted to show us more animals, and she brought us us to a building that housed rats. She told us they are raised as food for the birds since they have more nutrition than chickens and chicks. Next, she showed us two wolves, who were painted red, and looked like they just killed an animal. I thought they fed them a whole deer before she told us they were painted like that for a film. The last cage held a black wolf, which looked more like a dog than a wolf. In fact, I have heard black wolves are actually part dogs, since pure wolves cannot produce black colored offspring. It must be true, because that wolf really looked and acted like a dog. Daniel and I are grateful for all the work Timur and Sandra have done to bring us to Almaty and to the Reserve and to Almaty, and to give us such a memorable adventure from this unplanned excursion.

2.2. First rehearsal of cantata

Eugene Moon with boom; kil-kobyz
Daniel Corral, Timur Bekbosunov, Maestro Zhamat Temirgaliyev rehearsing the cantata
Sazgen Sazy rehearsing the cantata

Post by Eugene Moon; photos by Sandra Powers

At the rehearsal hall, we were greeted by the sound of the dombra played by a musician rehearsing her part. As we started recording the rehearsal session, the reality of being a boom pole operator began to hit me---with searing pain in the arm. Despite the ache in my arms and heat in the room, it was countered by the euphonious sound of the cantata. It was phenomenally wonderful. Brilliant and beautiful. It is a wonder how a non-Kazakh can compose a cantata so well that she knew how to put the music, instruments, and folk songs together. I have to say, I congratulate you, Anne. Well done! A round of applause to your virtuosity as a composer. I very much want the soundtrack and DVD of the cantata to turn out well, as it is something worth listening to and watching.

Sandra and I went back to the hotel to do some transcription. The transcription I have to do is to write down all the dialogue and speaking from the intro of Sandra's film, "The Nomad's Song," so that it can be translated into Russian for the audience on the day her film is shown. Later, we interviewed a bayan (similar to accordion) player, and the player of the kyl kobyz, a type of violin played like a rebab with a hollowed-out body and made of horse hair that creates a distinctive sound like the morin khuur (Mongolian cello), but an octave lower.

2.1. Museum of National Instruments, Panfilov Park, Zenkov Cathedral

Anne LeBaron at the Museum of National Instruments, Almaty (2008)
Panfilov Guardsmen Park
Zenkov Cathedral

Post written by Eugene Moon; photos by Viktor Bekbosunov and Anne LeBaron

Today we visited the Museum of National Instruments, originally an outpost building for 19th century Russian imperialists. What's inside is incredible: all the Kazakh instruments of various shapes, sizes, and ages, like the dombra, kobyz, adyrna, and zhetygen. The museum also displayed other multicultural instruments like Saz, Sitar, Yue Qin, Gadulka, and the smallest Gayageum I have ever seen.

We then left the museum and walked into Panfilov Guardsmen Park, featuring a memorial for the 28 soldiers who died defending Moscow against German tanks in WWII. With its eternal flame and sculptures of soldiers in defense stance, it’s a good depiction of the social realism style. Zenkov Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church, rises like a fantasy fairy-tale structure near the memorial. It had survived the wars, and was converted into a concert hall during communist rule, before being restored to the control of the Russian Church after the collapse of the USSR.

We kept on walking and got to the old square where they are setting up for Nauryz. (Nauryz is one of the oldest holidays on earth, and is celebrated as the first day of renewed life that comes with spring.) It was quite an interesting sight to watch a woman screaming a slew of directions in Russian from the center stage, over a microphone, to dancers wearing their traditional garb in the freezing wind. I wonder how fast they can learn in such low temperatures.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

1.1. Introduction to this series; Arrival in Almaty

Daniel and Eugene
Timur the young Octoberist

The following posts, for the week leading up to March 25, are being written by Eugene Moon (CalArts, BFA 3, School of Art). Sandra Powers (CalArts alum, Film / Video) took the photographs. They're part of the U.S. delegation to oversee, document, and participate in the March 25 Almaty premiere of my new work, "The Silent Steppe Cantata," along with Timur Bekbosunov, tenor, producer, and administrator, and Daniel Corral, assistant to the composer. Sandra, our filmmaker, is creating an art / documentary, "The Normad's Song," and Eugene Moon serves as production coordinator. They arrived in Kazakhstan yesterday, after their looooonnng flight from Los Angeles.

We were greeted in the morning with a nice breakfast from the Rixos Hotel's restaurant/buffet. The food did not literally greet us but it is one way to put it since we can eat breakfast for free because the sponsor paid for it. They have Western food, like waffles, scrambled eggs, croissants, etc. The best is boiled horse meat. Very delicious! Really good texture. It tastes like Turkey ham but better. After we ate, we all walked to the copy store, which is a few blocks from the hotel. The air was cold and it burned our faces, freezing our noses and ears. It is spring at this time of year around the world but here it seemed to be just past the middle of winter. Snow is still present everywhere. One can see icicles hanging off from roofs. After business at the store, we went to a currency exchange to replace our dollars with Tenge. One dollar is about 146 T.

Our first foray into Kazakhstan was to the Tien Shan (Heaven) mountain range. To see the powdery snow glitter and glisten in the sun was beautiful. The sky was bright and blue, a strong contrast to the sky in Almaty, which was foggy and gray. We went to Medeo first, a skating rink, where we recorded families skating with the children while Kazakh and American pop music blared and music videos were playing on the large mega screen. We left Medeo and headed on up to the peak of the mountain. Because it was foggy in the city, the horizon where the city of Almaty should be was blocked by gray haze and we could hardly see the city at all.

We drove down back to the city, which got brighter and a little warmer. We stopped by to take a look at a conservatory once called Palace of Pioneers, an art and entertainment hall for Soviet youths. (Timur attended as a young Octoberist, a level younger than Pioneer.) We drove on to the circus. The city is filled with many advertisements with local products as well as Western merchandise. So much of the architecture looks simple and Soviet-like while new buildings, like skyscrapers, stand out. The whole environment and mood of the city is simple and humble but at the same time, quite high tech and advanced.